June 21, 2019 was designated âDay of Conversation and Actionâ in Chicago by internationally renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma. The previous evening he performed all six of Bachâs solo cello suites continuously for nearly three hours with no intermission for fifteen thousand people in a free outdoor concert at Chicagoâs Millennium Park. The program entitled âThe Bach Projectâ is being presented in 36 cities around the globe. Alongside of each Bach Project concert, Yo-Yo and his team partner with artists and culture makers, cultural and community organizations, and leaders from across sectors to design conversations, collaborations, and performance in days of Action. These public events and creative experiences are different in every location; they demonstrate cultureâs power to create positive change; they inspire new relationships, connect partners across locations, and ask us all to keep culture at the center of our efforts to build a shared future.
In his artists statement for the Bach Project Yo Yo shares: âMusic, like all of culture, helps us to understand our environment, each other, and ourselves.Â Culture helps turn âthemâ into âusâ. And these things have never been more importantâ¦.I share this music which has helped shape the evolution of my life, with the hope that it might spark a conversation about how culture can be a source of the solutions we need. It is one more experiment, this time a search for answers to the question: What can we do together that we cannot do alone?â Chicagoâs Day of Conversation and Action focused on the question: How can we use culture to confront gun violence in the city?
Two such events, which were attended by Chicago ICAP guitarist Marcus Dunleavy in his neighborhood, were âThe Greening of North Lawndaleâ and âCultural Conversation in Pilsenâ. Together with the North Lawndale neighborhood, the City of Chicago, and the School of the Art institute of Chicago, the community came together to plant trees and site stones, continuing the construction of Unity Park. âThe Greening of North Lawndaleâ project built on a partnership between artist Pedro Reyes and SAIC that reproduced Reyesâs work âPalas pro pistolasâ (Guns into Shovels). North Lawndale-based gardeners, artists, and musicians led volunteers using shovels forged from melted down, donated weapons to continue the beautification of Unity Park at 19th Street and Kostner Avenue.
A Special opening program included a welcome from community leadership; a presentation of the project by Pedro Reyes and SAIC; and musical performances by Yo-Yo Ma, Civic Orchestra of Chicago flutist Alexandria Hoffman who performed on a flute which was created from a shotgun barrel, and student guests. In his opening words Mr. Reyes shared: âThis transformation is a change in polarity from something that produces death to something that produces life.These trees become a natural monument.â And âThis is a gathering of idealistsâ¦there is no garden without a gardener. Everyone here is becoming part of the effort to make this world a garden.â North Lawndale is a neighborhood known to be one of the most affected by gun violence in the U.S.
The event took place as one of the 150 year anniversary celebrations of North Lawndale. After his performance Mr. Ma shared: â150 years feels like a long time but itâs not a long time for a tree to grow and to grow a neighborhood and to strengthen the neighborhoodâ¦Our purpose, I think, is to constantly strengthen and renew forever so that we can cultivate ourselves for the future.â After purchasing the shovel that he used to plant a magnolia tree from Mr. Reyes, Mr. Ma remarked that he wished that (presumably now that it is no longer a weapon) he would be allowed to keep the shovel in his cello case as a carry-on on flights. He said that he would love to be able to use it to plant trees in neighborhoods suffering from violence around the world.
Cultural Conversation in Pilsen took place at the National Museum of Mexican Art and opened with a viewing of the special installation of the artist JRâs living mural âThe Gun Chronicles: A Story of AmericaâÂ Click here to see the story
Next were performances by OpenMike artists from SocialWorks, Chance the Rapperâs youth empowerment organization. Following the performances was a panel discussion moderated by WBEZâs Natalie Moore including Yo-Yo Ma, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, author and activist Jahmal Cole, and artist Hailey Love.
Teen artist Hailey Love shared a memory of her and her friends being racially profiled which illustrated how she feels that, as she puts it, âit is illegal to be a teen of color in Chicago.â Mayor Lightfoot responded that âwe need to have an honest conversation about raceâ¦ to not treat youth of color as enemies and let the youth feel ownership of their own neighborhoods.â She continued: âWe have to let young people feel a sense of connectivity to something that is bigger, more important and valuable and gives them nourishment.â She asked the question: âHow do we reach young people and let them know that their lives matter?â
With regards to that question activist Jahmal Cole shared about an organization he leads called My Block My Hood My City. He explained how the organization mentors youth to lead tours throughout the city. One benefit he shared is that they have been able to bring together business leaders and owners with young people to stimulate their imaginations while allowing both parties to âsee the city and itâs youth through an asset based lens rather than through a liability based lens.â My Block My Hood My City serves as a vessel to introduce people to places in their own city that theyâve never seen or experienced. Jahmal shared the quote âThe highest level of maturity is to take full responsibility for your actionsâ from one of his mentors and implored us to reflect on it at the level of society as well as at the personal level. Mr. Ma said that âalthough the currency of weapons is fear, the currency of culture is trust.â He said that imagination can be taught by doing what Jahmal doesâ¦giving experiences to people. You start to build imagination when you begin to become curious. You begin to imagine, artificially, different experiences on top of each otherâ¦(i.e.) oh I like this placeâ¦How did this place get built?Â Everybody has access to imagination.â
One of the most powerful moments in the discussion came when Mr. Ma shared a short video clip of the Concert for Peace which he helped to organize last year at St. Sabina Church in the Englewood neighborhood on Chicagoâs violence ravaged south side. Prior to showing the clip he said:Â â Iâm 63 and one of the biggest, longstanding questions that Iâve always asked my self is âwhatâs the use of what I do?â âI question that EVERY SINGLE DAY.â âIâm not one of those people who says âoh you need to listen to meâ. I have to find the purpose.â
The music in the Concert for Peace was created in collaboration between musical arrangers, players from the Chicago youth Civic Orchestra and parents of youth who were killed by gun violence. The program contained the favorite songs of the deceased and their poetry set to music. Mr. Ma explained: âWe were honoring the lives of people that are no longer with us. (we created) A place to heal and to find purpose.â The panel discussion ended with Yo-Yo Ma performing a touching rendition of John Lennonâs âImagineâ.
In the âDay of Conversation and Actionâ Yo-Yo Ma who, having delighted countless millions while performing on every continent, and having recorded virtually all music known to be created for cello; having performed for eight American presidents in the course of his storied career and being inarguably one of the most celebrated musicians of all time, humbly models for us the philosophy for music and life that he discovered as a teen in the memoirs of his musical hero Pablo Casals. âI am a human being first, a musician second, and a cellist third.â
(ICAP offers its heartfelt appreciation to Marcus Dunleavy for the article and photographs.)